YOU ARE AT:OpinionReality Check: SOS – can we save our streaming?

Reality Check: SOS – can we save our streaming?

Giraffic wades into the streaming video content challenges facing the mobile telecom space

It’s a great time to be in the streaming media business. Over the course of the past year, we’ve seen tremendous growth in mobile watching – especially with millennials. With services like Netflix, Amazon.com, Hulu and YouTube available anywhere with a good mobile network (LTE) connection, more people are consuming, creating and sharing video content.

As smartphones and tablets are becoming the central media consumption devices, it’s really no surprise T-Mobile US launched their controversial “Binge On” service for unlimited streaming. But, with more people streaming content, are they really getting the experience they want, or are they settling for what they can get?

The truth is that today’s LTE networks only show standard-definition video, and streaming video customers will still swallow a poor user experience even though they may have paid a high price for a device that promises crisp image quality and faster connections.

Why does this happen? Because networks are congested, and the trend is only getting worse as operators and CDNs can’t keep pace with the increasing demand for mobile video content.

Networks choke on HD

As more people stream video they also have to deal with increased mobile network congestion or Wi-Fi connections (public or private Wi-Fi) – especially while commuting. Take a ride on the New York City subway or London’s Tube and count the number of people catching up on the latest episode or movie. Even on private corporate buses in Silicon Valley that shuttle Google or Apple employees up and down Interstate Highway 101, there’s a vast number of people trying to catch up on a show over the private Wi-Fi network on the bus.

It’s simple math. More people trying to access the network in a small space leads to congestion at the cell tower, base station or router. More people accessing the content equals network slowdown. This also means a lot of the commuter’s time is sucked up by buffering, interruptions during tower hand-offs or waiting for downloads to finish. It appears this growth in consumption always exceeds the infrastructure.

Recently, the Electronic Frontier Foundation confirmed T-Mobile US throttles all HTML5 video streams to about 1.5 megabits per second when Binge On is enabled. So they’ll sacrifice quality to make sure people aren’t stuck buffering. To avoid this, some content providers have also shifted to adaptive streaming – meaning providing simultaneously with a few quality levels available (e.g. high definition, HD ready and SD), resulting in quality switches according to the network supported bandwidth. Combined, both approaches still limit the quality of the video – meaning consumers are stuck without being able to unlock the HD potential of their devices.

Image quality still matters

Last fall, we surveyed a large number of tech enthusiasts and influencers and found consumers are almost equally as concerned with buffering (34.4%) as they are with image quality (30.5%). Presumably, consumers expect to have a poor experience due to the constraints of their video service and mobile or Wi-Fi network connections.

HD really needs 4 to 8 Mbps and 4K needs at least 15 to 20 Mbps; speeds Cisco says won’t likely be achieved on a mobile network for years, and usually not available on a public or shared Wi-Fi connection. If a user wants HD content today, they’d have to either download it ahead of time or stream it on a private Wi-Fi network.

Consumers have to fight for content availability both from the video provider and the network. On desktops a consumer can select the optimum quality, but most applications default to lower quality for mobile streaming, down sampling by the video to deliver the content seamlessly. Application-based enhancements ignore if a particular device could actually support HD. For the sake of delivering at speed, network-based solutions do the same.

So, where does that leave device manufacturers who want to enable the best quality and the best speed?

The only way to bridge the gap between the growing demand of users and limited infrastructure capabilities is to involve the mobile device in pulling the data in more efficient way and faster. They have to be able to provide the streaming media as a high priority out of the competing demands on the network.

S.O.S.

Essentially, the quality of today’s mobile video experience is sinking under the demand. We don’t need a life jacket yet, but the boat has too many leaks. The only way to “save our streaming” and improve quality of service is to combine network changes; application and CDN technologies; and efficient streaming technology on the mobile device.

With the rise in streaming media adoption by consumers, networks need to make it a priority to enhance delivery of the highest quality experience. You can’t say you make video a priority, but offer content in a less than desired bitrate. Sacrificing quality for speed shouldn’t ever be an option. The two have to go hand in hand if you ever want to provide an outstanding consumer experience.

Applications need more content with higher diversity of quality. With new 4K devices and ultra-HD screens on the rise, apps need to offer content that suits the amazing displays. Streaming services not only have to evaluate availability of content, but also the quality of service by making crisp image and throughput just as important as the transfer speed.

The development on the CDN and network sides is obvious, but at this point the device innovations have been neglected, which is sad because devices are begging for HD and UHD content. The only way to be able to outsmart existing network conditions is from a client-side improvement. Giving devices the ability to overcome the network challenges has a tremendous impact on the streaming experience and is the missing link that can turn the poor viewer experience into a great one.

No solution is picture perfect. It will take the entire ecosystem working together to embrace the technologies that improve both the speed and the image quality of streaming video. It can happen, but it can’t be a trade off.

Editor’s Note: The RCR Wireless News Reality Check section is where C-level executives and advisory firms from across the mobile industry share unique insights and experiences.

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Subject to editorial review and copy edit, RCR Wireless News accepts bylined thought leadership articles, up to 1000 words, from industry executives. Submitted articles become property of RCR Wireless News. Submit articles to [email protected] with "Reality Check" in subject line.

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